When I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington, I knew I had to go. No – I felt compelled to go.
I marched in remembrance of the fiercely passionate women who were such an important part of my life, including my grandmother, who was pregnant with her first child when women finally got the right to vote in 1920. She remained actively involved in politics well into her ‘90’s, hosting meetings of Democratic women in her home. And I marched for my mother, who didn’t live to see the election that delivered a gut punch to her first-born daughter. She grew up in a Republican home and continued to vote that way into my adulthood. As the Republican Party grew increasingly conservative, she switched allegiances. When she became more housebound in later years, you could find her angrily shouting at the talking heads on cable news, and you were sure to get an earful about the political outrage of the moment whenever you talked with her. She took her politics personally.
I marched because I care – a defining hallmark of what women, everywhere, give to their families and their communities. That I define my circle of care more broadly than others is a sign of my liberal bent: America is my family and the world is my community.
I saw that spirit of community wherever I looked: in the faces of the people of all ages, races, cultures and religions who gathered together in an expression of their deepest values. I saw it in the sea of pink knit kitty-cat hats, a tongue-in-cheek re-appropriation of a word used in a demeaning context during last year’s election -- a “meow” to that snarl.
I saw that spirit on the faces of the law enforcement officers and military members stationed throughout our route, smiling and bantering with us in good humor. Despite a crowd exceeding half a million, there were zero arrests, and I witnessed no unruly behavior.
So what does it all mean, now that we’re back home? For me, it helped to end a two-month period where I felt adrift and dispirited. I knew I needed to get politically active in ways I wasn’t comfortable with if I wanted my voice to be heard, but I struggled to find the energy.
No more. In a march that demonstrated hope and cooperation rather than anger and domination, I found my voice. And I will no longer keep quiet.
Twenty years ago, I contacted a lawyer recommended by a family friend to talk about getting divorced.
I’d wanted someone with a reputation for taking a collaborative rather than adversarial approach. My own parents divorced when I was 23, and I didn’t want to repeat their experience.
Two things I remember about our initial meeting: first, she told me that she worked for me, and would represent me as I wanted. But she also told me she’d just finished a case that took two years to resolve, and did more to enrich both her and opposing counsel than to serve the divorcing couple and their children. She didn’t like representing people whose definition of winning demanded that the other side lose. I checked off one box on my mental checklist of attorney requirements.
I tearfully began my story. She pushed a box of tissues towards me and told me she was there to help me manage the business side of my divorce. If I needed emotional support, I should seek it elsewhere. She then laid out the path forward and the costs involved.
With that memorable and no-nonsense introduction, my divorce journey began.
There’s a business and an emotional side to death as well. I began last year dealing with the emotional aspects of my mother’s death, but as the first year anniversary of her death approached, I became increasingly involved in the business aspects.
I have lessons to share. They’re from a layman’s perspective; you’d be wise to consult your own financial adviser and read the wealth of information available from financial services firms and publications before creating your own plan.
Revocable Living Trusts
Many people create trusts to protect their assets, and to avoid the special ring in hell reserved for probate court.
They’re great if you can afford to hire a lawyer to draw one up for you -- and if you make sure that once you’ve done that, you retitle all the included assets into the name of your trust. That doesn’t happen automatically; retitling your assets is your responsibility. It’s the kind of administrivia that’s easy to put off.
My mother spent thousands of dollars creating a trust and ensuring that one of her more complicated assets, the mineral rights to family property in Texas, was incorporated into it. That proved to be useless when, upon her death, I learned she had never retitled these complex assets into her trust’s name -- nor her home, her car, and a significant chunk of cash in her checking account.
What this meant is that everything not titled in my mother’s trust had to be assigned to probate court. The requirements vary by locality, but in my mother’s jurisdiction, it meant we had to wait at least 6 months after her death to ensure there were no claims upon the estate before dividing these assets. It has also meant accounting to the court for every transaction, and thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Under legal supervision, we were able to sell my mother’s condo. This was made more complicated since standard contracts had to be altered to comply with the probate process. We’re still working on retitling the Texas mineral rights into the name of the trust, which has involved getting legal counsel from that state to satisfy the requirements of the different companies who now own and operate businesses there. Cha-ching.
I know my mother never intended this; she spent a lot of money to make sure these assets were included in her trust. But that's what happens when you neglect to retitle assets under the trust’s name rather than your own.
Can you navigate probate by yourself? Sure. Keep in mind you’ll need to start while you’re still in the early stages of grieving your loss and dealing with the disposal of personal possessions. It’s a lot to take on, emotionally and mentally.
What do you do if you don’t have significant assets, or don’t want to pay the costs involved in creating a trust, retitling all your assets in its name, and regularly updating it?
Saving my son from probate hell
There are low or no cost ways to bypass probate. For bank accounts and certain other assets, it's called Payable on Death (POD); for vehicles, retirement accounts, and real estate, it's called TOD (transfer upon death).
One day, in a fit of pique over my frustration with the probate process, I spent several hours researching what I could do to protect my son from this ordeal. Over the course of one afternoon, I marched down to the county title office with the necessary paperwork in hand (downloaded from their website), and had both my car and home retitled to transfer on death, naming my son as the beneficiary. It cost about $60.
I also contacted the banks where I had accounts to arrange for each to be payable to my son upon my death. Each bank or credit union has a slightly different process, and not all of the people you talk to will know what it is – but be persistent. There was no cost to make these changes.
You should be able to set up Payable on Death for eligible assets throughout the U.S., but not all states allow transfer on death deeds. I'm lucky that Ohio does.
It's well worth finding out what you can do in your state to protect your real property and other assets from going through probate, incurring legal fees along the way (in our case, about $20,000 and counting). Not to mention the delays to your heirs in accessing your estate.
Talk to your financial adviser, if you have one; advising you on end-of-life money matters is part of their job. For example, mine had me designate the funds his firm manages as POD several years ago to avoid the legal costs of updating my trust.
Do it now -- or let others do it later
I just turned 63, and realized that my father was only 12 years older than me when he died. He hadn’t been sick and we had no reason to believe we would not have many more years together, until we didn’t.
End of life thoughts come in the shiver of mortality from each new age-related ache, or in the solitary silence in the middle of the night when we sense the passing of time more acutely. I’m still young enough to fear these moments, to push them away and say, “Not now.”
My mother’s death stripped some of that denial from me when I became her executor. Because she hadn’t dealt with all the practical matters, I had to.
So in death she’s taught me one final lesson. I like to think that in heeding its call, I’m bestowing one last gift of love upon my son and his family.
I often spoke of my mother (and my father as well) as having taught me more through negative than positive examples. I was only half joking.
My mom held grudges, and could be stubbornly unforgiving. It always surprised me when she lit into someone who had crossed her, since she projected such a sunny temperament most of the time. There were hidden depths of anger.
Maybe she'd absorbed a few negative life lessons at her own mother's knee, because of the many positive lessons my mother passed down to me, the most meaningful was granting her children the freedom to find their own way in life.
My grandmother groomed my mother from an early age to become a successful singer, and was devastated when 21-year old Anne fell in love with a 20-year old former Navy gunner, attending college on the G.I. Bill and living at home in Denver with his mother and stepfather. It poisoned my grandmother's feelings about my father and had long-term consequences, most notably that my mother never again lived closer than 1,000 miles to her parents.
I never got to know my grandmother very well. When I was growing up, we alternated our summer vacations between Houston and Denver. Unlike my dad's mother, my mother's parents did not regularly visit us; I can only remember one such occasion.
During our visits to Houston, I remember my grandmother peppering her "Yankee" grandchildren with smiling endearments. The steely woman from the stories my parents told about their engagement and marriage? I never met her.
But I see her in in the letters she sent my mother during her freshman year in college. This scolding tone is common:
"We are getting just a little bit exercised about the absence of letters from you. I received one letter from you in Florence and we've had two here and you've been there almost six weeks. I really meant it when I said write home at least once a week and its time you did something about it. I don't want another week to pass without a letter from you and don't get any crazy notions that you can put off writing us and then call long distance. Do forget the telephone and lift up your pen. Telephones are for emergencies only."
I don’t remember my mother ever taking such an imperious tone with her own children other than in a momentary lapse of anger. And she certainly didn’t direct our college choices, nor dictate our behavior once we were there. Even so, I didn’t really notice this trait of my mother’s until I was a young mother myself, and separated from my husband for the first time under difficult circumstances. My dad and stepmother took me and my 18-month old son into their home while I considered what to do next. In addition to the hand-holding, they offered lots of advice, most of which I was too shell-shocked to listen to.
My mother, though, called and said nothing more than, “I’m coming over. I just need to hold you.” And so she did, sleeping next to me those first two nights in the basement of her former husband’s house. She never gave me a word of advice, nor asked why I’d never told her what led to my departure. She just stayed nearby, a warm and loving presence. Only later did I realize this as a turning moment in our relationship – the moment when I began to let her back in after years of closing her out.
I can’t say how much of my own hands-off approach to parenting came from my mother’s example and how much was simply an innate part of who I am. Discipline didn’t come naturally to me; I preferred appealing to reason. After all, that had worked pretty well for my parents, with me.
But my son wasn’t me. That was never more apparent than in how we approached school. I never had to be told to study; by high school, I often set my own alarm to get up extra early to fit in a last round of cramming before a big test. I might procrastinate about starting term papers, but I always got them done on time, and done well. No parental exhortations required.
My son’s approach can best be demonstrated by a conversation we had when he was in high school. He’d gotten a D on a test. I’m sure I sounded exasperated when I asked him about it. He said guilelessly, “Mom – a D is still passing.”
I looked at him in bewilderment and replied, “I don’t understand the mindset behind that statement. How can you be satisfied with a barely passing grade?”
This became our pattern as high school progressed. By then, I’d been divorced for several years and no longer had another parent in the same house to share the thankless task of issuing reminders, checking homework, communicating with teachers, and the endless other things I tried to do to help him stay on track.
By his senior year, he’d escaped being kicked out of his prestigious high school only because a new superintendent had asked that the school forgo such measures during his first year on the job. My son, relieved, promised to turn over a new leaf, only to return to his lackadaisical ways once school began.
I remember a lot of angry exchanges between us that autumn. I also knew I had little leverage; he was nearly 18 and increasingly independent. I had many agonized talks with friends and family about what I could do to make him buckle down and do his homework, but nothing worked.
Every day I’d go to work and hear my colleagues talk about the impressive accomplishments of their kids. I’d kick myself for not cracking the parenting code that would inspire my son to do the same. After lengthy conversations with a friend, I realized my anger and hurt were closely connected to the perception I feared others would have of me as a parent. If my son failed, it meant I was a failure, too. I had made him a reflection of myself, and that shocked me. I didn’t want to be that person.
I realized this wasn’t about me -- it was about him. He was old enough to make his own life choices, and it was time for me to abdicate my role as parental scold. When he came home that day, I told him I was done hounding him about school. I can’t say I stopped paying attention as he missed deadlines, failed tests and reached the bottom of his class, but from that day on, I kept my word.
We took part in the usual senior traditions – the fancy photos, the ordering of his cap and gown and graduation invitations. All were well in hand when I came home from work one March day to find him lying on the couch next to my desk. I got on my computer as I usually did after work – my decompression ritual. He lay silently behind me, and something in his silence made me ask if there was something wrong.
He began crying quietly and told me, “I’m the worst son in the world.” He was failing chemistry – again. “I’m just so done with this, Mom. I want to drop out.”
What happened next is perhaps my proudest moment as a parent. I reassured him that nothing he could do would ever make him the worst son in the world. With my arms around him, I told him how much I loved him, and that I would support him in making his first adult decision. I also said he faced the first of many forks in his life path; how he managed this decision would be a model for how he managed future decisions.
I told him I expected him to handle everything related to dropping out; I would not get involved. His adult decision, his responsibility. I also expected him to get his GED and a job.
And then I stepped back and watched him transform in front of my eyes. The slacker I knew disappeared. Within two weeks, he’d successfully dropped out and gotten a job. Within a month, he had his GED. That summer, he and two friends drove to Alaska and hiked a 25-mile wilderness loop in Denali National Park. He came home a different person – more mature, shaken by the experience of learning how fragile life can be. The following January, he enrolled in college; he graduated in 2009.
The dreams we hold for our children sometimes get broken. That doesn’t mean our dreams were wrong, it just means that our kids didn’t share them. I never got to experience watching my son graduate from high school, but six years later, I got to see him graduate from Coast Guard boot camp. It was spectacular.
I don’t pretend to know what made me able to reach deep into myself and be the parent I needed to be for my son that March day in 2004. Maybe it was the example set by my own mother, who showed me what it looks like to give your child wings and let her fly.
It's not yet autumn, but cool mornings like today's remind me that it soon will be.
It was finally time to board the plane that was taking me far away from my family for the next six months. Time for that last kiss with my husband, one more chance to hold 9-year old Jamie in my arms and try to remember the smell and feel of him that would have to last me for two months.
At that moment it got real for him and he began sobbing, “Mommy, don’t go!” My husband extricated him from my arms, but he kept trying to cling on to me. The last sight I had was of the two of them watching me walk down the ramp into the plane, his face contorted and red, crying “Mommy, don’t go!”
I sat down in my seat and completely lost it. Nose running…deep gasps as I tried to stifle the sobs that would not be contained.
A kindly flight attendant came over to me. She knelt beside me and, holding my hand, said, “That broke all of our hearts. I just went out to check on your little boy and I thought you’d want to know that he’s doing fine now. He and his daddy are standing at the window trying to pick out your seat and talking about where you’re going and when they’ll see you again. He’s going to be OK. ”
It remains one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me. Smiling through my tears, tightly grasping her hand, I began to breathe again. The wracking sobs finally subsided.
And then I buckled up and got ready to begin this new adventure on the other side of the world.
It took my mother's death for me to acknowledge the truth others could see so clearly and I only grudgingly: my mother was an extraordinary woman.
My mother was groomed to be a singer from early childhood. She first appeared on the radio at age three, graduated from high school just before she turned 16, and was off to the University of Texas in Austin the autumn of 1943 to study voice.
The summer after her college graduation, her voice teacher sent her to Denver, where he hoped the drier climate would help tame her asthma before her audition with the NY Metropolitan Opera. Instead, she met my dad in the payroll line at the department store where they both worked, waiting to cash their paychecks. By the time her audition came around, she was engaged and planning a very different life than the one her mother set out for her.
Yet music remained a huge part of her life. As a young bride, her pride and joy was this piano. I’m not sure how she managed to buy it; in the early days of her marriage, she worked as a teacher while my dad finished college on the G.I. Bill at the University of Denver. After graduation, with jobs scarce in Denver and parental disapproval over the marriage still simmering in Houston, my parents relocated to Cincinnati, where my dad’s brother and his family lived.
My dad eventually got a job at Procter & Gamble, with an annual salary of $2,000. My mother worked, too, as an editor for the employee magazine of the Fernald Nuclear facility outside Hamilton, Ohio. Her letters home are full of the challenges of managing a household on so little money, and hopes of a raise or a new job for my dad that would boost their income.
She must have pinched pennies to buy the piano, which happened sometime before my birth in 1954. I think her father may have helped; I have a letter from my mother to him with the picture above, dated February 1953, as if to day, “See, Daddy? I’ve not given up my dreams, not entirely.”
And she didn’t. My mother always kept music alive in our house. She sang in the choirs of the churches we attended, performed in musical theater productions all over town, and taught the basics of manners and decency to her kindergarten students through music.
This was the piano that accompanied my mother as she warmed up her voice with vocalization exercises. She banged out chords while she sang, ever higher (and louder), “Mee-ee—MAY-eee-meee. Mee-ee-MAY-ee-me,” rudely awakening me when I would have rather slept in on Sunday mornings. It’s the piano I played “Autumn Leaves” on, over and over, until my brother and sister would scream, and worked out the complexities of Chopin’s Etude in E-Major, a beautiful piece my mother had selected for her wedding.
I hit my head on this piano bench at age 4. My parents allowed me to stay up late for a grown-up party in our Westwood apartment to serve cookies. I spilled a few and as I bent down to pick them up, one of the adults, who was using the stool as a table, pushed it out to get up. I got a nasty cut on my forehead, and the party ended so my parents could take me to the hospital for stitches. I can still remember my daddy telling me that if I didn’t cry, they’d buy me a chocolate ice cream cone on the way home. That’s all it took: I was stoic, earning praise from both the doctor and my parents (and the promised chocolate cone).
This piano nurtured the budding compositions of my brother, who went on to become a talented songwriter and librettist, winning a Jonathan Larson award for his work on a musical that has not yet been produced. He then became a teacher himself, who – like our mother – uses the arts to help design curriculum for 4th graders in NYC.
It also nurtured the talents of my sister, another accomplished NYC musician and singer. She makes her living singing her own and others’ songs, and has performed with a number of famous musicians, past and present – people like Wilson Pickett, Jennifer Hudson and Spyro Gyra.
My mother died last November, unexpectedly and far from home. I wasn’t prepared for dealing with the disposal of the many treasured possessions that document her life – and my own. I scan old photos, read old letters, and wish she were here so we could talk about them. I wasn’t ready to lose her. No child ever is, even those who live to become grandmothers themselves, like me.
This old piano bears the scars of the rambunctious household it was such a big part of. Giving it away is hard, but as I sift through everything left behind, I know it’s time that it go out into the world to make new memories. And I know my mother would be thrilled that it will have a new life teaching children to find meaning in music.
The Didrichsen family dedicates this piano in loving memory of Anne Elkins Didrichsen. May it help spread the joy she found in music to all who play or listen to it.
I’ve been waiting for my grief over my mother’s death to kick in ever since she died November 28.
I was on the cusp of another milestone moment: the birth of my first grandchild. I spent the weeks following her death far from my familiar routines, busy helping my son and his wife as we hunkered down and waited for the birth.
There were moments when grief seeped in. Like the dream where I was having a party and she decided to leave, and I begged her, “Stay, please don’t go.”
Or the holiday play we went to a week to the day after she died. At the end, the cast sang “Auld Lang Syne,” and I was unable to stop the tears streaming down my cheeks.
Or the day we picked up her ashes and brought them home. That day became the night her first great-grandchild was born; a red-head like his great-grandmother (at least for now).
I thought the grief would smack me in the face when I came home, where her absence would cut like a knife through my usual routines...but I hit the ground running. So many details related to managing her estate, much of it beyond my understanding. Lots of things to go through in her home, despite the massive effort my sister and brother-in-law put in over the Christmas holidays. Lots to do, lots to think about, lots of ways to avoid deeper feelings.
And now we’re two weeks away from her memorial service. I’m enveloped in old pictures, old letters, old poetry and scribblings -- by her life, in pictures and words. I wake up in the wee hours and feel compelled to complete its organization.
This is where I’ve found my grief: it’s here, at 2 am as I read the letter she wrote her parents just before my first birthday, trying to persuade them to drive from Houston to Cincinnati for Christmas despite the snowy weather. (They didn’t.) Or the wistful poem she wrote my brother on the cusp of adulthood. In going through all the old pictures, from her childhood through her final days, and the memories they invoke.
In the hopeful light shining from her eyes as a young woman and aspiring opera singer, ready to take on the world.
And so I sit here in the wee hours of the morning and I scan pictures and letters, and I cry. I’m here, in the dark, remembering the imperfect and sometimes maddeningly obstinate woman who was my mother. Wishing I could call her up and talk about the feelings her death has aroused, even while knowing she was never good at talking about things like that, preferring to put them in the writings I gather and preserve.
And so, I mourn at last and with love for this wonderfully fierce woman who was my mother.
Those of you who have lost a loved one will know what I mean when I say how surreal the experience is. The world goes on around you: another terrorist attack that takes innocent lives, another mass shooting, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday -- it all carries on while your personal world shatters.
My mother is dying, breath by slow breath, in a hospital two minutes from her grandson's house, while at the same time his wife enters the last few days of her pregnancy with their first child together. We have this great grief and this great joy, co-existing.
My mom has struggled to breathe for over two years. Getting up and walking caused her heart rate to increase and her breathing to become ragged. No doctor could diagnose definitely what was wrong with her; no medication or inhaler helped more than temporarily. Over the last month I watched her weaken as she struggled with one bout of bronchitis and then another.
Two weeks ago, while at her doctor's office, she first told me, "Barbara, I don't think I can make this trip." And I told her that of course she could. She told me again last Friday, and then again as we were leaving for the airport on Sunday.
It was a rough flight for her. Only in retrospect, seeing these pictures I took of her en route, can I see how tired and unwell she looked. But I thought with her family around her, pampering her and preparing healthful food for her, she'd regain her strength.
Maybe she sensed as we pulled away from the door of her building that she'd never see her home again. In any case, we made the trip as planned and late on Sunday, my sister and her husband arrived from New York. So when it became apparent that this trip was not going to be the one that we'd planned, she was surrounded by family. My brother was able to join us on Thanksgiving.
Anne Elkins Didrichsen passed on at 10:05 this morning, five minutes after we left her to finish the final leg of her journey in solitude. I will carry her voice in my head always, as I do my dad's, and reach for it often in the years ahead.